On Writing Without the Internet

It astounds me how much I rely on the internet when I write. I’m not talking about checking social media or email: I mean using the internet as a resource. In the midst of writing, I often will look up some source, fact-check, do a little preliminary research. If I am not extremely diligent, I’ll soon find I have several dozen tabs open on my browser at a time (I once spent the entire length of a movie bookmarking and closing over 100 of them).

That’s all to say, I do a lot of quick internet searches when I write.

It’s easy to do. Though I often write in my home office, surrounded by the wisdom of books, I find it much more convenient to, say, look up the definition of a word by opening another tab, rather than stand up, pull out one of my hard copy dictionaries, and thumb through the pages until I come to the correct entry.

It’s a strange phenomena when you think about it, really: this ability to use a word processing device for so many other useful functions (I do think of my computer primarily as a word processor). Who would ever imagine that a typewriter could also give you access to a world of information?

Lately, I’ve been preoccupied trying to write a paper for an academic conference that I’m attending this summer. Progress has been relatively slow – and the weeks are creeping up on me. I have a lot of ideas, but trying to put them all together into some logical sequence has been difficult. I keep hitting road blocks – mind blocks. When the mind block happens, I check my email (again) or go on social media and scroll, much as don’t want to admit it.

One day this week, I woke up to work on my paper as usual, but found that the internet was not working. Now, when I say I’m “going to work on my paper,” what I really mean is that I will work on it . . . after checking my email and floating around social media for awhile. (You see, even before I’ve approached my paper for the day, I’m already trying to take a break from it!) But that day, I couldn’t: the internet was not working.

When I look back on it now, I find it strange that I didn’t try too hard to find or fix the problem. Rather, I calmly accepted the fact that the internet wasn’t working, quickly adjusted my frame of mind, and bravely chose to see this absence of the internet as a positive thing.

Now, you’re right: I could have just used my phone for the internet that day. But when the internet didn’t work that day, I decided not to replace my computer internet searches with ones on my phone. Besides, I think of my phone primarily the way I think of my computer: as a device used for the function it was created for. I use my phone almost exclusively for calling and texting (neither of which I do that often). Probably better not to get into the habit now of using it for internet searches.

During a normal writing session, I get distracted by numerous notifications that pop up on my screen, and I get sucked into browsing for longer than needed on social media. But it I didn’t realize just how much time all of these unnecessary “breaks” took up until I could not do them any more.

The surprising thing I found during the day was that I didn’t miss the internet. Not after that initial attempt to try to “check” my email and social media. Rather, I just worked ahead with my writing. It was one of the most productive days I’ve had in many months – both in my writing and my day in general.

I still came to mind blocks – but when they hit, instead of relying on the internet to let me forget the difficulty of writing for awhile by getting lost in information, I picked up a book. Actually, I picked up several.

At one point, to soothe my accustomed need to open new tabs and/or be distracted by social media, I opened a book that had nothing to do with what I was writing about, and began to flip through it at random and read. I caught myself in the act, and realized why I was doing it. As I think about it now, it seems absurd to me that I’d do that as a coping mechanism: and yet, I do that daily, multiple times even, on the internet. I scroll through and find videos or short texts that have nothing to do with what I’m writing about, and yet I turn to these things when I run into writing problems.

What came of my non-internet day — no longer being able to rely on the internet to distract and pacify me — was a realization that I needed to return to some primary sources. I found these books on my shelves, left my office, and curled up in a comfortable corner to read for awhile. Not browse, not skim, not flip through pages the way I scroll through my newsfeed. No. Read. 

Yes, I realized that I needed to take a few steps back and do a bit more reading before attempting to write more. That was the core of my writing problem: yes, I had lots of ideas, but perhaps not enough solid grounding to let them take root. Taking the time to read and think about what I read — rather than just flitting about, in a panic, because I still haven’t written the paper and the conference is coming — is exactly what I needed to move forward. And I was able to finally come to this conclusion by eliminating the distractions which pacified my panic and let the solutions remain on surface level only.

And another thing (because, I started this essay, after all, claiming that my need for the internet when writing was not to check my email and social media, but rather to use the internet as a resource) : when I was still working on the writing part of my paper that day, and found the need to look up some little bit of information, instead of doing so, I would 1) look it up in a physical book, 2) determine to look it up on the internet later, or 3) realize that it probably wasn’t that essential, after all.

How did I get by for a day without the internet? Surprisingly well, actually.

Now, I’ve not sworn off using the internet for research, or even for distraction now and then. But I can’t help but see how much more I accomplished by having an internet-free day, one where I didn’t just have a mind block, but found a real way around it, by reading.

Turns out, the internet wasn’t actually “down” that day – my computer just wasn’t connecting to it automatically the way it usually does. Which is an interesting thought: what would happen if I were to re-wire my brain so that when I go on my computer, or have a writing problem, I don’t automatically connect to my email and social media. What would happen if I, metaphorically, turned that off?

Question: What changes have you seen in your writing when you’ve eliminated or minimized the internet or other resources / distractions?